The Culture Bubble & Scripted Drama
Cultural trends are defined by technology and taste arbiters. In the modern era, increasing disposable incomes have transformed the majority of the world into consumers of services as well as products, and newly created audiences have gravitated towards emerging forms of media technology. The consumer hunger for new entertainment experiences has dovetailed with emerging distribution platforms and business models to create cultural bubbles which have defined specific epochs of cultural resonance in the modern era. Firstly, there is the technology and then follows the native media format. Finally, wrapping it all together in a compelling package are the taste arbiters, stand out artists around which the technology and the distribution providers coalesce to drive engagement and transform the creative medium into a cultural bubble which comes to define a particular era.
Why Scripted Drama Is The New Pop Music (Which Was The New Film)
Hollywood for many years defined how people spent their leisure time and bought a couple of hours of glamour, affinity and otherworldliness. Pop music took this consumer yearning for escapism one step further and allowed people to define their identity and social relevance around the specific type of content which they consumed, creating a cultural tribalism and an impetus to invest in business models which could fuel this hunger. Thus, vinyl singles gave way to vinyl albums, which gave way to tapes, which made way for the CD heyday of the 1990s.
Since Netflix made its strategic pivot into SVOD (subscription video on demand) in 2007, there has been a decade of accelerating engagement with streaming video services which has fueled video’s cultural answer to the album: the scripted drama series. Although not a new format, scripted drama was creatively diluted and tailored to suite the needs of broadcast TV. The linear scheduling requirements of ad-based programming meant that shows had to be quick, punchy and generic, so that when the all too soon commercial break intruded, viewers felt sufficiently comfortable with the content to be prepared to tolerate the ads. The result was clichéd plot lines, superficial character development and negligible creative experimentation. SVOD changed all that. With on demand video inventories, scheduling no longer mattered, a subscription-based revenue model removed the need for commercial breaks, and a data mining of audience behaviour enabled the commissioning of niche content- which would be indifferent for some, but yet compelling for others. SVOD initiated a creative new dawn for show-runners, enabling episodic story-telling according to the requirements of the narrative arc rather than the time restrictions of linear TV scheduling.
Why SVOD Has Created The Scripted Drama Bubble
Subscription video on demand services latched onto the power of scripted drama not because of their inherent admiration for video-based story-telling, but because it made both commercial and technological sense. Unlike other forms of valuable TV content such as sport and blockbuster films, scripted drama can be commissioned rather than licensed, which allowed the likes of pay-TV disruptor Netflix to create its own brand equity on the back of under-writing original content. The use of the accounting practice of amortization allows the cost of commissioning to be spread out several years further, reducing pressure on budgets. The ability to create social buzz around original and exclusive content allows for service differentiation in an increasingly crowded marketplace, acting as a viral marketing tool, and stoking the public appetite for scripted drama.
With SVOD market leader Netflix taking on additional debt to pay for its escalating scripted drama war with Amazon (e.g. $1 billion in bonds issued in October 2016) and with Amazon happy to loss-lead on video in order to entice consumer into its retail ecosystem, the economics of scripted drama are becoming increasingly distorted. With social media giant Facebook also poised to enter the marketplace, the arms race could increase at just the time when the average consumer starts to realize that their main entertainment might actually not be what the zeitgeist tells them it should be. SVOD therefore could suddenly be facing the same asset bubble deflation with which pay-TV is now confronted, where premium sports is now an overpriced asset which consumers are increasingly unwilling to subsidize through inflated subscription fees.